Man ‘o War is arguably the greatest horse in thoroughbred racing history.
The 1920s are considered the Golden Age for sports heroes in America. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones and Red Grange were celebrities. However, no athlete in the land was more revered than horse racing’s greatest marvel – the mighty Man ‘o War. While Ruth had charisma, Dempsey power, Jones grace and Grange speed, Man ‘o War had it all. At a time when America most needed it, he rejuvenated a sport that had been fraught with corruption and helped usher in a new era of hope and prosperity for a nation recovering from the First World War.
Bred by August Belmont II and purchased as a yearling by Samuel L. Riddle, Man ‘o War would become the most famous racehorse in America. In his two-year racing career, the chestnut colt won 20 of 21 races. Running distances from five furlongs to more than a mile-and-a-half, Man ‘o War set three world records, two American records, and seven track records.
Blending speed, power, and an incredible 28-foot stride – the longest of any thoroughbred in history – Man ‘o War drew record crowds wherever he appeared. The original Big Red, he was the favorite in each of his 21 career starts. Three times he went off at 1-100 odds. Like a rock star, Man ‘o War was protected around the clock by security guards. Fans flocked to him, often attempting to snatch hairs from his mane and tail.
“In almost every race, he just got better. You know, if he didn’t set a track record or a world record or an American record, he just wasted his time that day.” – Bill Cooke, former director of the International Museum of the Horse
Foaled 101 years ago today at Nursery Stud near Lexington, Kentucky, Man ‘o War was sired by Fair Play, an accomplished runner. His dam, Mahubah, was well thought of in breeding circles even though she was never a star on the track. His paternal grandfather was the ill-tempered 1896 Belmont Stakes winner, Hastings, a violent competitor known to bite and ram other horses during races. Man ‘o War’s maternal grandfather was English Triple Crown winner Rock Sand.
Riddle, a Pennsylvania textile manufacturer, purchased Man ‘o War for $5,000 [about $90,000 today] at Saratoga’s 1918 yearling sales. It turned out to be one of the greatest bargains in racing history.
Like his grandfather, Man ‘o War had a violent disposition. He routinely dumped his exercise riders and was often belligerent when handlers tried to saddle him. Standing just over 16 hands and with a white star and stripe on his forehead, the great horse won 20 times between June 1919 and October 1920. He won his first race by an easy six lengths and only twice allowed the second-place finisher within a length of him at the wire.
Man ‘o War lost once – to a horse named Upset.
If anything, the loss enhanced his legend, as the fiery colt almost pulled off a miracle win. There were no starting gates in those days. Horses lined up behind a tape and the race began when the tape was raised. At the Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga in August 1919, Charles Pettingill filled in as a substitute starter. A man in his late 70s who struggled with vision problems, Pettingill had trouble keeping the horses from breaking prematurely through the barrier. On the day of the Sanford, Man ‘o War – who was carrying 15 more pounds than upset — broke through five times before the start.
Reports vary, but many say Man ‘o War was facing the wrong way when the tape was raised.
By all accounts he left the post near the rear of the field of seven. He found his stride and began to pass horses all along the backstretch. Turning into the homestretch, Man ‘o War was third, two lengths back. The lead horse, Golden Broom, gave up a few strides down the backstretch, and Man ‘o War steadily drew closer to Upset, who held the lead. A hundred feet from the finish he was three-fourths of a length away. At the wire, he finished second by a neck.
Man ‘o War raced against Upset four other times, including the 1920 Preakness, and won each meeting. In September 1920, Man ‘o War faced Hoodwink, a 100-1 underdog, in a match race at Belmont Park. Hoodwink was never in it. Racing against the clock, the fierce stallion covered the mile-and-five-eighths in 2:40. The 100-length win shattered the world record by more than four seconds. Both remain Belmont records for the distance.
Although born and raised in Kentucky, Man ‘o War never ran in the Kentucky Derby, nor did he ever race in the Bluegrass State. Riddle thought the mile-and-a-quarter distance at Churchill Downs was too long for three-year-olds at the beginning of their season. He won nine times as a two-year-old and entered the winner’s circle eleven times the following year, including wins at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The final start of Man ‘o War’s brilliant career came in Canada in October 1920. Facing Sir Barton, who had won racing’s first Triple Crown in 1919, there was tremendous anticipation for the showdown. At Kenilworth Park, Sir Barton broke well and owned an early lead. Man ‘o War quickly reeled him in and cruised to a seven-length victory, smashing the track record for a mile-and-a-quarter.
Man ‘o War won a record $249,645 [$3,256,250 today] in his two-year racing career. He was retired to stud in 1920, and two years later landed at Faraway Farm in Lexington. Over the next quarter century, more than one million visitors from all over the world came to see the great horse. His best-known groom was Bill Harbut, who died in October 1947. One month later, Man ‘o War died quietly in his stall at 30.
“Almost from the beginning he caught the imagination of men, and they all saw different things in him. But one thing they all remember – that he brought an exaltation into their hearts”– breeder Ira Dryman, during one of nine eulogies at Man ‘o War’s funeral service.
Man ‘o War was embalmed – a first for a horse – and laid in state in his barn isle at Faraway Farm. His funeral, held November 4, was broadcast nationally on radio. Flags were lowered to half-staff at racetracks across the country. At nearby Churchill Downs, 7,500 stood in silent tribute for the playing of Taps in the champion stallion’s honor. In 1977, Man ‘o War’s remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where they remain today.
Near the end of 1920, The New York Times honored Ruth and Man ‘o War as the outstanding athletes of the year. “A superman [Babe Ruth] and a superhorse – these were sport’s greatest contributions to the history of the year about to close,” wrote the Times. “Some might rate the superhorse, Man ‘o War, as the outstanding figure of the two, for he has passed on from the field of competition and has left a story of achievement which may never be surpassed.”
The leading sire in North America in 1926, Man ‘o War has had tremendous influence on American thoroughbred racing. His descendants include some of the greatest horses in history, including War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Seattle Slew and American Pharoah. Inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1957, Man ‘o War has been ranked the greatest horse of the 20th century by Blood-Horse, Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press. ESPN ranked the majestic animal number 84 on their list of the top athletes of the 20th century.